A weapon for the solidification of power, architecture has often been used to communicate an image, an ideology. The example of Spots Berlin allows us to understand a mutation in the purpose of architecture today. Spots Berlin is the story of the strategy of a real estate group to promote an office building, abandoned by its clients.
On a rainy evening, luminous and colorful shapes are reflected on the ground of Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. The surrounding glass buildings reflect the rhythm of the bright highlights. The atmosphere of this historic square is electric. One’s eyes are pulled towards the building, the Park Kolonnaden, source of the sweeping light. On its facade, strange signals compose a moving image, a face appears...
Kolonnaden Park has a slight air of the Kunsthaus Graz, designed by Peter Cook in 2003. It seems to have been equipped with the same lighting system as “the alien of Graz,” breathing and convulsing in its cocoon as night falls. The system used in these creations was designed by two architects, brothers, from Berlin, Jan and Tim Edler.
Thanks to circular neons and other assembled tubes, driven by a system that can be programmed by computer, the facade becomes a screen. Working under the obvious name Realities: United, the architects presented their intervention in autumn of 2005, Spots, more as “an architectural installation, and less as a screen” because it proposes “high resolution content and plays with transparencies and the building, allowing a typical use of the premises during the daytime”.1
The new Potsdamer Platz, Berlin’s business center, has suffered from fluctuations in the real estate market. The building, built by the German promoter HVB Immobilien, was home to a number of firms in the past, but economic instability forced them to set up in other, more dynamic cities like Hamburg or Munich. The promoter thus found itself with over 12,000 square meters of empty office space in the center of Berlin.
“We quickly needed to find a strategy to bring back firms like Park Kolonnaden” explains Dirka Kalesse2, marketing manager for HVB Immobilien AG.
A fresh cultural wind was blowing across the capital of the ex-RDA and the successful example of a media façade in Graz helped this project to emerge: the building would be equipped with a temporary architectural and artistic installation, with the intervention of a team of architects, a curator and video artists. In just a few months, the architects of Realities: United managed to adapt their system, that had been tested in Graz, to the building in Berlin.
Capitalizing on the impact, with its strong added value, of architecture and contemporary art in the business world, the promoter would boast of the merits of the building and its location, thanks to the media buzz around its installation. The frontier had been breached, the process of disinhibition of architects with regard to communication was underway.
Today architectural intervention has become a real tool for communication on different scales; commercial, touristic, advertising. The message carried by architecture, being no more than a symbol, can serve to affirm or redefine an identity. In our postmodern, hypermodern or, quite simply, contemporary society, the added value of architecture is used as a marketing strategy in real estate promotion.
Architecture tends to communicate. It pushes the envelope, beyond its principal function as shelter, towards the solidification of a cultural and technical situation. Image or place of power, of ideology or of control, architecture is not free to choose its camp. The edifices that populate the city, according to Paul Valéry3 are sometimes “mute, others speak and others, well.../... sing.” Architecture is a form of language. A generous language for its inhabitants, perhaps even dangerous when it comes to the most subversive architectures. Designing, then building, are guided acts, driven by a concept, an idea, in response to a need.
Starchitects & branding
Many firms and luxury brands have turned to architecture to improve their visibility and reputation, having their stores signed by an starchitect. Architects’ names are now worth something, a sort of commercial added-value, a brand even, that firms are ready to pay a high price for. It is thus unsurprising to see architect Lord Norman Foster charge a supplementary fee for the use of his name—ennobled—to the detriment of his international agency, Foster and Partners, in the promotion of a building that he designed.4
The trend towards transforming stores into flagships, representing a brand image, is more and more common on a global scale. We find the most significant examples in Tokyo where architects Renzo Piano, Herzog and de Meuron, along with many others, have designed multi-story retail outlets for major international brand names: Hermès and Prada.5
We could also cite the Prada flagship store in New York built by OMA and Rem Koolhaas in 2001. However few companies have attempted a retroactive architectural intervention like HVB Immobilien AG in Berlin. This example was then, on more than one level, symptomatic of the transformations at work in the communication strategies of the system of production.
Having been the armed wing of power according to certain people, must the architect now resign himself to being a simple executor of a strategy for advertising purposes? The example of Spots in Berlin shows us that architects have simply adopted a concept that illustrates the principal of architecture as a medium for communication, without having a strong architectural opinion. Other operations lead one to think that the architect can distill a strong statement within this type of collaboration. We assume today that there are two main types of procurement. The first comes from companies that want to capitalize on the architect’s name (the starchitects). The architect’s brand provokes and solicits the commission, the response is provided in a formal style that is appreciated and recognized throughout the world. It allows the creation of larger and smaller projects within appreciable budgets, with the expected technical and aesthetic prowess. The other type of procurement comes from firms that have taken into account the transfer of counter culture as the dominant culture.6 This type of project has given rise to a new profile of professionals: the Genetically Modified Architects (AGMTM). Devoid of inhibition in the face of a Capitalism, a Modernism that embodies decaying values, the AGMTM of the global world sublimes and challenges individual thinking, so much richer in terms of situations.
Genetically modified architects
The margin of freedom that can be provided to these new types of architects by public or private projects is more the result of one or two subversive actions than the freedom—relative as it may be—of the artist collaborating with capital. This part tends to invert situations, to cancel, to reveal social norms, to circumvent established rules by conforming on the surface to the rules of the system of production. As an example let us cite the work of Didier Fiuza-Faustino from the Bureau des Mésarchitectures. With Love Me Tender, he created a contemporary chair with a very unique design. When it is moved, the chair scratches the ground in a permanent manner. Through its features, it makes architecture of the area in which it is placed, in the sense that it triggers a process of spatial transformation. Architects Diller & Scofidio designed The Blur Building, a “cloud” pavilion on the lake Yverdon-Les-Bains for the national Swiss exhibition, Expo 02, in 2002. A building where there is nothing to see. Is it the desire for the complete dematerialization of an ephemeral pavilion for display? There is more at stake than this, the architects wish to make visitors part of the process of the building. With a skin consisting of a thick fog (obtained thanks to a high pressure water spray), visitors were forced to cover themselves in anoraks and other protective clothing to avoid being soaked. With this habitable medium, whose unique function is to present our dependency on vision itself, architects thus propose a “low definition,” visual experience.
These adventures have given birth to an aesthetic of the project and its achievement, restoring a physical aspect to experimentation and exploration of a building. The communicative functions of architecture, in the sense that it can make a statement, should be explored by all available means. Today, private procurement seems to be one of the few remaining areas that favor experimentation. With this in mind, architecture must be strategic and subversive, or it will no longer be.
Published in Stream 01 in 2008.